The ATP Finals is the one title missing from Rafael Nadal's CV - and time is running out for the 20-time Grand Slam champion to win it.
20 Grand Slam titles. 35 Masters 1000s. An Olympic Gold. Five Davis Cups. It is bizarre that Rafael Nadal has never triumphed in the year-end championships. Stranger still that he has only reached the final twice.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the Spaniard is unfortunate to possess a body that often breaks down across the course of a long season. Niggles pile up due to his physical style of play and all too often he arrives at the Finals undercooked or pulls out altogether.
Then there is a match-up issue. A clay courter throughout his career, Nadal struggles on a quicker court against his historic rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. He has beaten both men just one time apiece on indoor hard courts. For Federer, that was in his annus horribilis of 2013, when he was set back by a back injury and failed to reach a Slam final for the first time since 2002. Nadal's sole win against Djokovic was a decade ago.
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Djokovic and Federer both have vastly superior records on the grass courts of Wimbledon and the fast courts at the Australian Open than Nadal, so it stands to reason that they prosper indoors, where the play is inevitably faster. Nadal's instinct to stand behind the baseline and defend comes unstuck against such players.
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But it is obvious that soon he will have more than just Federer and Nadal standing in his way if he seeks to win this elusive crown. Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas have taken steps towards realising their Slam-winning potential, winning the 2018 and 2019 editions of the O2 respectively.
Both have games that could be prosperous against Nadal. The German has a big serve and crushing ground strokes that can blow anyone off the court and his Greek counterpart has all the attacking instincts to have a successful game on fast courts.
But in this peculiar year, Nadal could have renewed optimism as he heads to London, where the ATP Finals will take place for the last time.
With large swathes of the season cancelled due to Covid-19 and the Spaniard given the easy choice of skipping the US Open to prioritise Roland Garros, he will be in a vastly superior condition than he usually is in November.
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And while Djokovic has secured the year-end world no 1 and only lost three matches in 2020 (one of which he of course was defaulted) but was well beaten by Nadal in their last meeting. A low, slow Roland Garros clay court in October may be an entirely different proposition to an indoor hard encounter, but Nadal totally dominated his rival in a Grand Slam final. That kind of victory will certainly provide a significant psychological edge in a potential match-up.
While the younger generation has come to the fore at this event in the past two years, the omens are not looking good. Tsitsipas has had a disappointing year after making tweaks to his game and in the French Open and the Paris Masters, he appeared to be suffering with a leg injury. Zverev has had a breakthrough year at Grand Slams but has been woefully inconsistent at regular tour events.
Dominic Thiem was highly impressive in London last year and will fancy his chances of causing an upset, while the Russian pair Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev have been excellent.
Djokovic remains the overwhelming favourite to take the title. But the field looks fairly open this year and Nadal may not have a chance to add this one last trophy to his cabinet again.